Paul and Jean are a couple from Wisconsin celebrating their 24th anniversary in Cairo. It’s not going so well.
A romantic evening with a Nile River cruise has fallen apart, and an offhand remark has spiraled into an admission that he doesn’t find her sexually attractive anymore.
“I love you,” insists Paul (Paul Morgan Stetler), like he’s jamming a stent into the conversation.
“Oh crap, that sounds ominous,” replies Jean (Jen Taylor).
Then there’s Seif (Wasim No’mani) and Maha (Naseem Etemad), the engaged Egyptian couple working as their tour guides. Maha’s a study in placid deference, continually assuring the tourists that their behavior — any behavior — isn’t culturally insensitive.
Seif, brand new to the job, isn’t as interested in assuaging egos. He needles Paul about religion and politics, and when the smarm he receives in return becomes too much to bear, he tells Maha he’s ready to throw him off the balcony.
The dividing lines are drawn boldly and early in Yussef El Guindi’s “Hotter Than Egypt,” now on stage at ACT Theatre through Feb. 20, in a production directed by artistic director John Langs. It’s the fifth world premiere staging at ACT for the Egyptian-born, Seattle-based El Guindi, and as someone who’s seen any of those previous plays might guess, the dividing lines are going to get fuzzy.
“Hotter Than Egypt” is a lighter effort than some of El Guindi’s past works, like “Medea” riff “People of the Book,” which delved into the devastating consequences of America’s war on terror, or “Threesome,” a bedroom farce with a chilling second-act hairpin turn.
“Hotter Than Egypt” continues El Guindi’s interest in intertwining the political and the personal, but the cultural tensions and the historical context — the play takes place during protests in Tahrir Square during the Egyptian Revolution — are merely signposts rather than crucial themes. The resulting play isn’t particularly complex, but it is smartly crafted, structured around lengthy scenes of two characters sparring.
Early on, Paul boasts to Seif about his no-BS approach to interaction and his admiration of Seif’s ostensible similar lack of veneer.
But everyone in “Hotter Than Egypt” is posturing. The Egyptians know it, and when they talk to each other, the actors drop their affected accents to signify speaking in Arabic. They drop the pretense, too.
The Americans are more deluded, and Stetler is reliably cringe-inducing as the play’s most oblivious character, a fount of self-aggrandizement whether he’s talking about his deep respect for Egyptian culture or his plans to run for political office. It’s a performance that’s impressively committed to crowding out any hint of likability.
While Paul’s journey toward sincerity is amusingly incompetent (the play’s title derives from one of his attempts to take back what he said about Jean’s attractiveness), the others make some progress.
El Guindi’s finely tuned dialogue allows the often-excruciating process of being honest with yourself to play out in real time in his long scenes, paced deliberately but decisively by Langs’ direction. Over Turkish coffee, Jean and Seif discover what they have in common and the huge gulf that separates them otherwise. Seif and Maha confront the simmering difficulties in their relationship that have suddenly boiled over — and the prospect of putting things back together.
No’mani and Etemad do good work as characters who respond in opposite ways to being trapped in unfavorable circumstances, tied to a precarious economic future. His laissez-faire sanguinity and her steely determination are convincing and compelling. But ultimately, Seif and Maha never quite break out of the B-plot status that the play designs for them.
El Guindi is most interested in Jean, a woman whose confidence can initially be thrown off its axis by a snide remark from her husband about her swimsuit. Taylor is working in a different mode of performance than her castmates, with an almost presentational style that communicates Jean’s carefully constructed but deeply fragile sense of self.
Taylor excavates Jean’s all-pervasive discomfort with precision, whether in a comedic seduction scene or a fraught moment of betrayal. If El Guindi perhaps focuses on Jean’s predictable arc to the detriment of his other characters, at least Taylor’s performance justifies it.